Codes and standards exist to ensure the safety of the public. While the goals behind the requirements are the same, sometimes, they are not harmonized with each other despite our best efforts. This can lead to confusion and uncertainty.
By Christine Porter, Field Evaluator and Codes/Standards Trainer, Intertek
Take, for example, the 2020 version of the National Electrical Code (NEC), which requires ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection at dwelling units for all 50-ampere outlets operating at 120, 208V, or 240V. Such a GFCI must trip at 4-6 mA of current; however, the current standards for heating and cooling equipment in the US (UL 1995 and UL 60335-2-40) allow a leakage current up to 12 mA. As a result, a unit could pass the requirements for safety testing and certification but not comply with the NEC. Indeed, there are Listed high-efficiency HVAC units being installed that are tripping listed GFCI circuit breakers because the NEC and heating and cooling equipment standards are out of sync.
Another example is seen in energy storage, particularly around alternative energy that must be stored for later use. This requires standards to address safety and reduce risks like fire and electrical shock that do not always align with codes. Additionally, there are cases where codes themselves may not align. Building codes, for example, have evolved to allow wood framing higher than 5-6 stories, to as much as 18 stories or more. However, the allowance was not put through the normal consensus process for NEC requirements, so the NEC must address these changes in framing and how it impacts electrical concerns.
What can the industry do when such problems arise? In the case with the GFCI protection and HVAC equipment, a Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA) has been proposed for the NEC to delay adoption until manufacturers can create a fix and/or standards can be updated. This might mean designing products that will not trip or finding ways to prevent excess leakage. Whatever the solution, the TIA will allow the industry time to adapt and find a way to coexist.
What can inspectors and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) do if they encounter discrepancies in the field? First, it is important to do research to determine if there is truly a problem with the code and standard being out of sync or if this is an issue with one company or product. If it is a more widely spread problem, it’s important to determine if this problem is related to a local code or ordinance, a state code or ordinance, or the NEC. Understanding the requirements within a particular jurisdiction will allow you to work with the proper authorities to address the discrepancy.
It is possible to propose an amendment to the NEC, like the TIA proposed for the GFCI/HVAC problem noted earlier. Locally, you can work with the jurisdiction to address the problem and propose solutions. Talk with members of the community, elected officials, and your fellow inspectors to inform them of your various proposals. Issues can also be raised to the code panel panels for the NEC to address broader concerns.
In addition to governing boards and jurisdictions, it’s important to reach out to the Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) and/or certification bodies that approved any products in question. These organizations can provide information such as which standard a product was evaluated to, the requirements, and how the equipment or device was evaluated. Many NRTLs also have experts on panels and boards that create standards and advise on codes, so they can help address the problem at an executive level. Finally, NRTLs and certification bodies are in a unique position to educate the industry on issues like this, bringing attention to the concerns and risks, as well as potential solutions and fixes.
Other industry organizations such as the Air Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), American Lighting Association (ALA), or the Energy Storage Association (ESA) can also help to educate you about the industry, standards, and potential solutions. And, like the NRTLs, they often can inform the industry and identify resolutions to problems.
Codes and standards are constantly evolving, and situations may arise where they do not align. Sometimes a particular code and standard cannot coexist. But in some cases, other solutions are possible. In all cases, it is up to everyone in the industry to work together to identify concerns, propose solutions, and continue toward the goal of safety and quality.